The nondescript, two-story, white bungalow at 928 N. Main St., in Rockford, IL, seems an illogical incubator for the 1990s neo-Confederate rhetoric that has shape-shifted into the Tea Party and Evangelical majority within the Republican Party.
Today, 928 N. Main is the home of the Rockford Institute, a 37-year-old, internationally recognized, very private, paleoconservative think tank. Its president writes the institute “has worked to preserve the institutions of the Christian West: the family, the Church, and the rule of law; private property, free enterprise, and moral discipline; high standards of learning, art, and literature. … (we) are just as proud to represent an organization that has given a voice to the Silent Majority.”
I spent countless conversational hours with Rockford Institute’s founder, Dr. John Howard, during the two decades I was editor of the Rockford Register Star. There was much on which we disagreed. We learned from each other; we occasionally found common ground. Dr. Howard is known, even among his ideological critics, as a gentleman.
This, though, is not John Howard’s story. Instead, it’s about a March 1998 newspaper story and the intersection of Neo-Confederates, the Tea Party and Evangelicals inside that nondescript bungalow a block and a half west of the Rock River. It’s a story about the 237-year-old struggle to define what we mean by “we, the people, of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…”
On March 15-16, 1998, the Register Star published a newspaper series tracing the connections among the Institute’s then-new president, Thomas Fleming, the League of the South and the Neo-Confederate movement. Fleming had been with the Institute since 1984 and has been editor of Chronicles, its publication arm, since 1985.
Fleming and co-author Michael Hill, both 1994 founders of the League of the South, pushed the Neo-Confederates to the national stage with their 1,800-word essay published in the Washington Post on Oct. 29, 1995. It was headlined “The New Dixie Manifesto: States’ Rights Shall Rise Again.”
Senior editor and political columnist Chuck Sweeny and senior writer and columnist Judy Emerson wove the connections in their project titled “New Confederates spark outrage in Rockford.” The backlash against the newspaper started before church that Sunday.
I can still hear the callers and remember the letter writers. Those were the days just barely before the web world replaced phone calls and letters to the editor as the methods of choice for disagreeing. “Neo-Con does not mean Neo-Confederate,” they said and wrote. “It means Neo-Conservative. You’re painting this like we’re a bunch of racists.”
The smooth, disdainful voice of Thomas Fleming felt as though it patted me ever so gently on the head as he explained to me the Anglo-Celtic, agrarian, hierarchical culture that made America strong and would keep her strong still if but she turned back to her roots. But, no, oh, no, he said, when I write Neo-Confederate, I mean confederate like the Scots and Welsh, the Lombards in Italy, the break-up of the Soviet Union. Not like Civil War confederates.
That Conservative-not-Confederate mantra was repeated by then-U.S. Congressman Don Manzullo, R-Egan. Never heard of such people, Manzullo said, distancing himself from any suggestion that his conservative, strict Constitutionalist positions in anyway paralleled the secessionist, slavery-defending, white, male rule of the states below the Mason Dixon line. Manzullo’s distancing may be disingenuous since he was a regular essay contributor to Chronicles, the Institute’s magazine. Manzullo was plenty angry that he’d been connected to the League of the South and the New Dixie Manifesto.
Ah, the League of the South. It is in the 1994 League of the South and that 1995 New Dixie Manifesto that my 1998 newspaper story and today’s Evangelicals and Tea Party begin.
Founded in 1994 in Killen, AL, the League of the South started with about 40 mostly academics, including Fleming and Hill. Fleming’s name disappeared from the league’s board of directors in 2002, as the league’s white supremacist points of view took center stage. As of Oct. 16, the league’s national website, DixieNet.org, doesn’t appear to be live and the domain name is for sale. A cached page from Oct. 8, 2013 and which is no longer available, appears to be all that was left of the original national site. The Facebook page remains active, as do individual state websites like Florida’s.
In 1995, a year after founding the League of the South, Fleming and Hill published their New Dixie Manifesto, many of its tenants taken from the League’s mission statement. The manifesto’s almost 20-year-old platform reads as though written by those who feel most disenfranchised today.
The Fleming-Hill manifesto makes its anti-nationalism and pro-state’s rights positions clear from its first sentences.
… there are all too many modern states that have tried to build artificial national identities out of the ruins of historic and traditional regions — the provinces, the sticks, the boondocks, the places where real people live, write poetry and pay their taxes … Far from wishing any ill to the rest of the nation, we believe that a renewed South will be an inspiration to other regions in search of their own identities and to all Americans who wish to lead their lives in peace … National uniformity is being imposed by the political class that runs Washington, the economic class that owns Wall Street and the cultural class in charge of Hollywood and the Ivy League … We believe it is time for the people of the Southern states to take control of their own governments, their own institutions, their own culture, their own communities and their own lives … This means an end, not only to federal interference, but to state interference in local government and local schools…”
That was written in 1995 and it echoes the journals, sermons and newspaper editorials of the 1860s and the web world of 2013. The Gadsden flag lives on with the Tea Party: Don’t tread on me.
The manifesto details the steps to restoring the world as it once was known — at least to free Southerners at the top of the hierarchy:
- Wean ourselves from dependence on federal programs and provide for our own needs without the transfer of government wealth
- Take our stand squarely within the tradition of Christianity
- Repudiate the one-sided and hypocritical movement to demonize Southerners and their symbols
- Leave black and white Southerners of good will alone to work out their destinies, avoiding … the urban hell that has been created by the lawyers, social engineers and imperial bureaucrats
- Ensure us the right to be let (sic) alone to mind our own business, to rear our own children and to say our own prayers in the buildings built with our own money.
Those words resonate at the center of October’s government paralysis. These are the words with which Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Mike Lee and Sen. Marco Rubio rally their Evangelical and Tea Party faithful. Though a majority are Southerners, assuming this is only a “South gone crazy” thing would be foolish. These are deeply held convictions founded in a sense of loss and disenfranchisement. It’s that which has made Jeff Foxworthy’s “You know you’re a redneck…” a continuing smash hit.
Foxworthy, Cruz, Lee or Rubio, finally, say the disillusioned, someone to give voice to the New Dixie Manifesto’s “real people” and take shots at the urban and Ivy League liberals.
Those who self-identify as Evangelical (Christian Right) or non-Evangelical Tea Party are the primary shapers of today’s Republican Party. Moderates — old school Republicans — make up a quarter of the party. On a national level, the political power of the Evangelicals and the Tea Party is disproportionate to their actual numbers, but that disruptive power cannot be overestimated.
In early October, The Democracy Corps released a detailed report on focus groups among Evangelical, Tea Party and moderate Republicans. Compare these demographic descriptions and core values with those in Fleming’s 1995 New Dixie Manifesto.
Evangelicals are a third of the Republican base; they are the biggest and most intense group: Four-in-five are “strong” Republicans and straight ticket voters. Over three quarters are married and well over 90 percent are white. Their demographics – white, married, religious, and older – sets up a feeling that they are losing. They talk about how the dominant politics and cultures have encroached on their small towns, schools, and churches. What troubles them when they talk with friends, family, and fellow believers is Obamacare, guns, government encroachment, gay marriage, and “culture rot.” They sense they are “pretty white” and “didn’t go to Harvard” – and “we’re just not [Obama]” – which means they are becoming a pretty “politically incorrect minority.” The so-called “tolerant” liberals just aren’t very tolerant when it comes to them. It used to be different … when describing their own towns.
Tea Party enthusiasts form just over a fifth of the base Republican voters –and are cheered on for the moment by the Evangelicals who are depending on their conservative backbone. These are straight ticket, anti-government, pro-business voters who are more confident that they can get America back to basics if they fight back. They are libertarian and not very concerned with homosexual encroachment, but the hot topics for their friends and family are Obama, gun control, Obamacare, taxes, and government spending. They have hope because they are trying to get America back to the Constitution, to American entrepreneurship, freedom,and personal responsibility … the phrase “back to basics” was repeated multiple times. What this means is they want to return to a time when they believe government was small, people lived largely free of the government, and Americans took responsibility for themselves. This is not those times. Government is catering to those who have not earned their benefits or the freedoms of this country. These groups are the most anti-immigrant, anti-food stamps, and anti-Obamacare and its potential beneficiaries of the Republican groups.
Back in March 1998, the Register Star’s series was little more than six pages of newsprint and weeks of conversation before the community moved on. Yet, of the thousands of stories published during my 20 years as editor, this one remains disturbing. Disturbing because it was predictive. Disturbing because it demonstrated so convincingly the unhealed legacy of the Civil War — in a community 29 miles from the site of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Disturbing because from that nondescript, white bungalow on North Main Street came the intersection of the cheer leading that would unravel a nation.
And, so what? Does it matter a whit that the core values of Thomas Fleming’s New Dixie Manifesto and League of the South have become the standing ovations of Americans who want no part of a federal union that encompasses 50 states? I think it does. The voices for disunion are strident; the disintegration of what was once an evolving collaborative endeavor is frighting.
The last time we argued as a collective people over whether we were one country or a confederation of states, we went to war.